TOKYO -- President Barack Obama landed in Japan Wednesday night to start a week-long Asia visit aimed at reassuring allies who share the region with an increasingly assertive China that the U.S. is here to stay.
Obama, who is making the first state visit to Japan by a U.S. president since former president Bill Clinton, arrived at Haneda International Airport shortly before 7 p.m. local time and 90 minutes later was at one of the city's top sushi restaurants, Sukiyabashi Jiro, for a 90-minute dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
"That's some good sushi right there," Obama said as he emerged from the basement restaurant along with U.S. Ambassador Japan Caroline Kennedy and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
The Ginza restaurant’s sushi master, Jiro Ono, who turns 90 next year, was profiled in the 2011 documentary, "Jiro Dreams of Sushi." Obama, tie less, as was Abe, arrived at the restaurant along with Rice and Kennedy, whom the Yomiuri Shimbun says lobbied Obama to attend the private dinner with Abe ahead of his more formal talks with him Thursday.
Reservations at the restaurant are among the hardest in the world to score, the New Yorker noted in a review of the documentary. Meals -- about 20 pieces of sushi -- run about 30,000 yen, or about $300 per person.
More formal talks with Abe will resume on Thursday, along with a dinner at the Imperial Palace with Emperor Akihito.
Even before he landed, Obama was looking to reassure anxious allies, telling a Japanese newspaper on the eve of his arrival that a string of small islands in the East China Sea that are subject to a bitter Chinese-Japanese dispute fall within the scope of a U.S.-Japan security treaty.
China rattled nerves in the region last November when it expanded its airspace to claim control of the air zone over the contested waters between itself and Japan.
U.S. policy “is clear,” that the tiny, uninhabited islands at the center of a long dispute are administered by Japan and “therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security,” Obama said in written remarks to The Yomiuri Shimbun.
The Chinese government took offense at Obama's remarks, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang saying the United States “should respect the facts, in a responsible manner abide by its commitment not to choose sides over a territorial sovereignty issue, be cautious on words and deeds and earnestly play a constructive role for peace and stability in the region.”
But Chinese state media also reported that numerous countries, including China and the U.S., have agreed to a code of conduct to reduce conflict and encourage communication over any encounters in the East and South China Seas.
Obama’s statement is longtime U.S. policy -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel conveyed a similar message last November in a call with Japanese military officials -- but Obama’s remarks made the front page, perhaps underscoring the level of worry about U.S. commitment more than two years after the administration said it would focus on rebalancing U.S. attention to Asia.
International conflagrations elsewhere and domestic concerns have distracted the administration, leading the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week to call the administration’s rebalancing effort toward Asia “uneven.”
Obama isn’t visiting China on the trip, but the country will loom large, with the U.S. looking to assure Japan and its other allies that the U.S.’s relationship with China won’t affect its relationship with other Asian countries. China’s assertion of a “great power” relationship with the U.S. has other countries worried that the two will create a relationship that excludes the others.
“We welcome the continuing rise of a China that is stable, prosperous and peaceful and plays a responsible role in global affairs,” Obama told the newspaper, adding, “our engagement with China does not and will not come at the expense of Japan or any other ally.”
Obama is under pressure to show some progress on the administration’s long-delayed trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Obama made a case for it, noting it would help Abe with his efforts to overhaul Japan’s economy.
The pact, he said, “will help support jobs and growth in all our countries and give an added boost to America and Japan’s economic revitalization.”
The Japanese press and several politicians were miffed by the fact that first lady Michelle Obama isn’t accompanying the president on the trip – a slight magnified by her trip last month to rival China with her daughters and her mother.
But her absence is unlikely to be a factor if Obama “does a good job framing the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Obama wasn‘t asked, and didn’t mention Abe’s decision earlier this week to send a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals from World War II. Critics see it as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
The administration is grappling with how to respond to Abe’s revisionist tendencies which have inflamed tensions with Japan’s neighbors, including China and South Korea.
Abe, a right-wing nationalist and former prime minister, returned to office in late 2012 and in December became the first Japanese prime minister since 2006 to visit the Yasukuni Shrine.
Japan’s internal affairs minister and about 150 members of the Diet visited the shrine this week ahead of Obama’s visit. Abe sent a ritual offering – a half measure viewed by his critics as an attempt to assuage domestic conservatives in Japan without further inflaming the Obama administration, which criticized Abe’s December visit. (Pop singer Justin Bieber touched off his own shrine visit controversy when he posted a photo of his visit to the shrine.)
Abe's actions have further soured Japan’s relations with China and South Korea, complicating efforts to present a united front to counter Chinese and North Korean aggression.
Obama isn’t likely to bring up the issue in public, said Douglas Paal, vice president for studies and director of the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It’s best done in private, it’s hard to do in public without stepping all over yourself,” Paal said.
Obama last month brokered a meeting between himself, Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye – who met for the first time since they both took office.
That came after Abe in January said he’d drop plans to review a 1993 Japanese government statement that expressed remorse for the suffering of mostly South Korean "comfort women" who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
Stuart Leavenworth contributed to this report.